Today’s Super Comic — Solo #1 (2004)

Anthology series are a tough sell. It’s much easier to get invested in ongoing sagas than short stories (and comic book short stories are super-short). I’m plenty guilty of overlooking them, even knowing full well the gems that may be hidden within.

But I actually did pick up one anthology book when it was new—the first issue of DC Comics’ Solo. The series was designed to spotlight the talents of renowned comics artists, and each issue “starred” a single such artist. Tim Sale headlined issue #1, joined by writers Darwyn Cooke, Diana Schutz, Jeph Loeb, and Brian Azzarello (and Sale did some of the writing himself).

The issue’s stories span genres, from superhero to noir to ordinary slice-of-life, but they’re all love stories in their own way. Catwoman takes Batman on a “date” by having him chase her across Gotham, though she’s actually chasing him. Supergirl recalls her first love. Martha Kent narrates a story about Clark trying to be a good person on his prom night. A hitman remembers a dead lover and his current loneliness. And so on.

Throughout the book, Sale demonstrates the range of his talents, bringing kinetic energy to Catwoman and Batman’s “dance” across the city, innocence and sadness to Supergirl, quiet grandeur to a young Clark Kent, pervasive bleakness to a hitman, and more.

“Solo” may be a misnomer, given all the talent helping out. Name aside, though, it’s a solid anthology that allows you to appreciate not only the storytelling possibilities of the artist, but of the comic book medium in general.

Of course, foolish me, I never picked up another issue, and DC cancelled it after #12. (Clearly it’s all my fault…or DC’s for setting the price tag at $4.95. Probably the latter.)

Writers: Darwyn Cooke, Diana Schutz, Jeph Loeb, and Brian Azzarello

Artist: Tim Sale

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Solo: The Deluxe Edition (HC)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Catwoman #1 (2002)

Here’s a time it actually made sense to start over with a new issue #1. When writer Ed Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke (both incredible talents) took over Catwoman, they injected a mature tone into the book and set Selina Kyle on a fresh course.

She’s been presumed dead for the past six months, so now it’s time to figure out what to do with her life. She laments how self-serving she had become, but she’s not quite sure what that makes her at present. As she observes Batman in action against the Riddler, she realizes how she doesn’t belong in his world of good against evil; her territory is “between right and wrong.”

Catwoman and Batman have a nice moment together on a rooftop, and the dialogue further sharpens their differences:

Batman: No matter what, I believe that deep down, you’re really a good person. Don’t you think so?

Catwoman: Sometimes…yeah, sometimes I do…but I think it’s just a lot more complicated than that.

(As a side note, it’s always nice when a Catwoman/Batman rooftop scene in a Catwoman #1 manages not to devolve into gratuitous sex to “shock” us or show off how “adult” it is. I try to stay positive here, but that poor decision in the New 52 series deserves the jab. So…sorry/not sorry. But as I said, Brubaker and Cooke bring a mature tone to this book.)

Catwoman, when handled properly, is a complex character. Her many shades of grey give her the potential to surpass Batman as a compelling protagonist. And this particular #1 kicks off the finest set of Catwoman comics I’ve ever read.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Artist: Darwyn Cooke

Inker: Mike Allred

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Catwoman vol. 1: Trail of the Catwoman (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — The Brave and the Bold #197 (1983)

I almost forgot—there was at least one version of Batman who got his happily ever after…and with Catwoman, no less.

Until the mid-1980s, the DC Universe had two Earths. The modern superheroes of the Justice League lived on Earth-One while the Golden Age superheroes from the 1940s lived on Earth-Two. Characters who were around in both eras, like Batman, had a separate version on each Earth. And The Brave and the Bold #197 shows us what became of the Golden Age Batman on Earth-Two.

The story is framed as an older Bruce Wayne looking back on a turning point in his life, when he had been the Batman for fifteen years and was beginning to lament how empty the Bruce Wayne side of his life had become. What life does he have to look forward to after Batman, other than a very lonely one?

The Scarecrow strikes, and his fear toxins heighten Batman’s anxieties to the point that he hallucinates all his allies vanishing, leaving only a reformed enemy to turn to—Catwoman. As they partner to apprehend the Scarecrow, they learn more about each other…and Catwoman helps Batman learn something about himself.

Namely, he acknowledges the fear that’s consumed him since his parents’ murder. It’s driven him to build a life where he’d never have to form a real emotional connection with anyone again and thereby never truly have to experience another devastating loss. He overcomes this fear by letting Catwoman—or more specifically Selina Kyle—into his life, and they spend the next twenty years happily married.

Actual emotional growth and an actual, fitting ending for the character. At least the original Batman got to experience those. This story’s inclusion in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told collection is no mistake.

Writer: Alan Brennert

Penciler: Joe Staton

Inker: George Freeman

Cover: Jim Aparo

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; included in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Batman #404-408 (1987)

batman_404I’m a bit pressed for time, so forgive me for going with a super-obvious one today. But Batman: Year One deserves all its many accolades.

Originally presented in Batman #404-408, this is writer Frank Miller’s other great Batman story, focusing on his early days rather than later days. But while The Dark Knight Returns seems to be the consensus favorite, I’ve always preferred the more down-to-earth Year One (though DKR might very well appear here before my year of positive reviews is over).

In Year One, Batman himself is the weirdest thing about his world. This is before the Joker, Mr. Freeze, and other colorful scoundrels have descended on Gotham City. (We do get some morally ambiguous Catwoman action, though.) Then-Lieutenant Gordon is the co-lead, and it’s basically a story of two flawed but good men trying to help their crime-ridden city in two very different ways. But maybe they can find some common ground and forge a productive friendship?

Artist David Mazzuchelli draws in an appropriately gritty style that produces several memorable Bat-images, and Miller’s tight story is constantly moving forward and gaining momentum.

Too often, writers portray Batman as so competent that he’s borderline superhuman, and that can be fun, but here we see an inexperienced Batman making mistakes and learning the ropes. This Batman is skilled but undeniably human, and that suits the character well.

If you enjoyed Batman Begins, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by reading this.

Writer: Frank Miller

Artist: David Mazzucchelli

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; Batman: Year One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Birds of Prey #13 (2000)

birds_of_prey_vol_1_13Comics have an unfortunate trend—a disproportionate number of crippling injuries happen to female characters. When Birds of Prey launched, it paired two characters who had been on the receiving end of that trend: Black Canary and the original Batgirl.

Barbara Gordon fell victim to a bullet to provide motivation for Batman and Commissioner Gordon, and she had been confined to a wheelchair since. Black Canary was brutally tortured to provide motivation for Green Arrow, and she lost her one superpower, her canary cry.

Really unfortunate. But none of this stopped them from being awesome in Birds of Prey.

In the earliest issues, they were the only two co-leads. Barbara had reinvented herself as Oracle, and she used her computer skills and intelligence to provide information to the superhero community. Black Canary served as Oracle’s field operative for highly dangerous covert missions, proving herself to be incredibly formidable even without her canary cry. The two balanced each other nicely—one was more rational and cerebral, and the other was more intuitive and idealistic, but both were highly likable leads.

Issue #13 shows how fun the series could be, and how writer Chuck Dixon made the right call in deciding this series shouldn’t be shy about inhabiting the DC Universe. When a mission goes awry, Canary and a certain party-crasher, the even more free-spirited Catwoman, end up stranded on the hellish alien world Apokolips—way out of either’s usual element. And back on Earth, Oracle and guest-star Powergirl try to piece together what the hell happened.

Great fast-paced action, great guest stars, great cliffhanger. It doesn’t excuse the unfortunate trend, but it fights against it.

Writer: Chuck Dixon

Pencilers: Greg Land and Patrick Zircher

Inker: Drew Geraci

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Catwoman #12 (2002)

Catwoman 12Catwoman has had quite a few solo series over the years, but none was better than Ed Brubaker’s noir take on the character, particularly in the first two years when the late, great Darwyn Cooke set the artistic tone.

Cooke’s clean, energetic style freed poor Selina from the over-objectification she’s often subjected to. This series was never about cheesecake—it was about a unique woman, one comfortable in morally gray areas, trying to do her part to improve her neighborhood. Cameron Stewart soon took over the art, and he admirably continued the general look and feel that Cooke established.

Issue #12 kicks off what’s arguably the pinnacle of the run. It’s a relatively quiet issue that spends quality time with the supporting cast, which Brubaker did an excellent job of fleshing out. That effort went a long way toward making Catwoman feel like the center of her own world rather than an extension of Batman’s.

And when faces from the past return to Selina’s life, we can trust that Brubaker and Stewart will be sending us on a thrilling ride. And yes—the next several issues fulfill that promise.

Catwoman at her best, no Batman necessary.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Artist: Cameron Stewart

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; Catwoman vol. 2: No Easy Way Down (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up